Michigan Street Hill has several nicknames: “Health Hill,” “Pill Hill,” “Life Sciences Corridor,” and “SmartZone” are among them. Whatever it’s called, this area of the Belknap Lookout/North Monroe neighborhood is home to a technology boom unlike any in Grand Rapids’ history.
Not long ago, Butterworth Hospital was the main attraction at the crest of the hill. Richard E. Butterworth donated the land for the hospital in 1887, when Grand Rapids visionaries and craftsmen were developing its famous furniture and cabinetry industry. The land donation aided the efforts of St. Mark’s Church, which had begun a housing and care ministry for six elderly women fourteen years earlier. The growth of that ministry resulted in the need for a larger, permanent facility that cared for whole families, not just the elderly. Butterworth Hospital opened its doors in 1890.
In 1997, the hospital became part of Spectrum Health, an integrated system of West Michigan hospitals and health plans. With the loss of thousands of jobs statewide, and the prospect of new high tech jobs on Health Hill as Spectrum expanded its horizons, Grand Rapids was one of eleven Michigan cities designated a SmartZone by the state government.
“The SmartZone was initiated by the state in 2002 to help us grow our high tech industry, and to improve the infrastructure for that industry," said Susan Shannon, economic development director for the City of Grand Rapids.
Getting Smarter, Generating Jobs
SmartZones stimulate the growth of high tech businesses by creating areas where technology firms, private research companies, biomedical businesses, or universities can work together in easily recognized smart clusters. These efficient and organized technology parks attract other businesses and technologically skilled professionals to the area.
The zone runs from College Avenue west to the Grand River, and includes the North Monroe business district. The Michigan Street anchors are Spectrum Health System, Van Andel Research Institute, and Grand Valley State University. From Michigan Street, the zone extends several blocks south and includes St. Mary’s Mercy Medical Center, Mary Free Bed Hospital, and Grand Rapids Community College.
The West Michigan Science and Technology Initiative, a technology accelerator and business incubator located in Grand Valley State University’s Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences, operates the SmartZone. Site development assistance with land purchases, and a Business Accelerator Center that provides wet lab incubation space, business plan development, access to venture capital, and other advantages, are available within the zone.
“Underway are three interrelated projects along Michigan Street,” Shannon said. “There is a 2,000-space parking ramp, and on top of that will go the new Spectrum Health Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion and three towers. The towers will have doctor’s offices, wet lab space, and a small hotel for people who have loved ones in the hospital. Across the street, the Van Andel Institute will triple its capacity.”
Also across the street will be the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital expansion, which, at 414,000-square-feet, will quadruple the size of the existing children’s hospital. This facility, already West Michigan’s largest center dedicated to children’s healthcare, is destined to become one of the largest pediatric hospitals in the country.
Together, these projects add up to nearly a half a billion dollars in development costs, and will create 2,050 new technology and healthcare jobs, and 2,500 indirect jobs. “By indirect jobs, we mean that we’ll need bankers, lawyers, restaurants, cleaners, and everything else that services all those new workers,” Shannon said.
A Founding Business Strategy
Tax incentives may be available to companies that locate in the SmartZone. One of those tax incentives is the Brownfield Redevelopment Financing Act (1996 PA 381), which allows local units of government to create one or more Brownfield Redevelopment Authorities. These Authorities have the power to determine what financial incentives are necessary to spur development of property that is functionally obsolete, contaminated, or blighted. Tax increment credits are often part of those incentives.
Katharine Czarnecki, Project Planner for LSL Planning, Inc., said, “To me, Brownfield Redevelopment is one of the best incentives that the state offers. It creates new tax revenue and helps a neighborhood improve its aesthetic appeal. Buildings that sit vacant or have cleanup problems may make some developers shy away because of real or perceived contamination on that site. Brownfields make it financially possible for developers to go in and make a change for the better.
“I think it's fantastic,” Czarnecki added, “especially when you can couple Brownfields with Historic Preservation tax credits and you get to see an old building come back around and become vibrant again. It helps create a community’s sense of space and honor its heritage.”
Bringing an old building back to life is what Irish Twins, LLC, plans to do with the old Imperial Metals site at 801-803 Ionia Street. This project will renovate over 30,000 square feet and expand the existing structure by an additional 60,000 square feet. The space is targeted for entertainment and commercial use.
The Grand Rapids Planning Commission approved a request to rezone the industrial property and create a redevelopment district, which opened the door for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to approve Brownfield Redevelopment tax credits for the $12 million project.
Founders Brewing Company, currently in the Brassworks Building, has signed on to be the first tenant in the renovated building. They have outgrown their existing space and the new location will allow them to expand their operations and add a courtyard. An opening is planned for late summer 2006.
“It’s important for us in our growth strategy to help Grand Rapids businesses stay in Grand Rapids,” said Susan Shannon. “It’s nice that we’re able to help Founder’s stay in this district.”
In a quote released by the MEDC on March 30, 2006, Governor Jennifer Granholm said, “This redevelopment project will transform an underutilized downtown site into a center for job growth and development in Grand Rapids. Projects like this are vital to creating vibrant cities in Michigan.”
In response to the area's growing popularity - and the projected increases in traffic volume, the Neighbors of Belknap Lookout (NOBL) have launched an initiative to expand transportation options. The project, called MOBL NOBL, will lay out a plan for the development of well-maintained roads, safe sidewalks and bike routes, and first-class mass transit. The project is funded by a $25,000 grant from the Dyer-Ives Foundation and will be managed by O’Boyle, Cowell, Blalock, and Associates, a local planning and design firm.
The Belknap Lookout/North Monroe neighborhood is looking ahead to a time of unparalleled growth and creation of new jobs. With everyone working together, the neighborhood’s legacy of creativity, imagination, and hard work that shaped a thriving furniture industry one hundred years ago will live on.
Investors can find more information about SmartZones, as well as the developments on and around Health Hill, at the Right Place, Inc. or the city's economic development office.
Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved
Image descriptions top to bottom:
Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences
Lemmon-Holton Cancer Center under construction
Van Andel Research Institute
Rendering of Helen DeVos Children's Hospital
Cranes are active on Health Hill
For more information about Belknap-Monroe North visit the:
- Visiting Guide
- Moving Guide
Directions to Belknap – Monroe North
From the North:From the East:
Take US-131 South toward Grand Rapids and exit at Leonard Street. Turn east (left) on Leonard and proceed across the Grand River to Monroe Avenue. Turn right onto Monroe Avenue and arrive in Belknap – Monroe North neighborhood.
Take I-96 West toward Grand Rapids and keep left to take I-196 West toward Downtown Grand Rapids/Holland. Take the Ottawa Ave exit, Exit 77C, toward Downtown. Stay in the right lane at the bottom of the ramp.
Turn right onto Michigan St NW and then turn right onto Monroe Ave NW. Arrive in Belknap – Monroe North.
From the South:
Take US-131 North toward Grand Rapids and merge onto I-196 East via Exit 86A toward Lansing. Take the Ottawa Ave Exit, exit 77C, toward Downtown. Turn slight right onto Ottawa Ave NW and then turn right onto Michigan St NW. Turn right onto Monroe Ave NW and arrive in Belknap – Monroe North.
From the West:
Take I-196 East toward Grand Rapids. Take the Ottawa Ave Exit, exit 77C, toward Downtown. Turn slight right onto Ottawa Ave NW and then turn right onto Michigan St NW. Turn right onto Monroe Ave NW and arrive in Belknap – Monroe North.
Take I-96 East toward Grand Rapids and merge onto US-131 via Exit 31A toward Grand Rapids/Kalamazoo. Merge onto I-196 East via Exit 86A on the left toward Lansing. Take the Ottawa Ave Exit, exit 77C, toward Downtown. Turn slight right onto Ottawa Ave NW and then turn right onto Michigan St NW. Turn right onto Monroe Ave NW and arrive in Belknap – Monroe North.